Original Research

Prevalence and Impact of Health-Related Internet and Smartphone Use Among Dermatology Patients

Author and Disclosure Information

Health information is increasingly accessible via the Internet and smartphone applications (apps), and patients may perceive these resources as tools for self-education and/or self-diagnosis. The objective of this study was to assess the characteristics of dermatology patients who use the Internet and/or smartphone apps to access health information and to evaluate the impact that these resources have on patients’ health care–seeking behavior and interactions with physicians. Online resources offer both opportunities and challenges for dermatologists. Because patients often consult online resources for information about dermatologic conditions and may rely on these resources instead of seeking the care of a dermatologist, it is important for dermatologists to be involved in the development of high-quality online content that educates the public while also emphasizing the need to seek in-person medical care.



Patients increasingly use the Internet and/or smartphone applications (apps) to seek health information and track personal health data,1,2 typically in the spirit of being a more educated consumer. However, many patients use the Internet in an attempt to self-diagnose and independently find treatment options, thus avoiding (in their opinion) the need to seek in-person medical care. Additionally, electronic access to health information has expanded beyond computers to smartphones with apps that can provide users with a simple interface to personalize the health information they seek and receive.

Prior studies have shown that seeking online health information and health-related social media is more common among women, younger patients, those with a college education, and those with a higher income.3,4 However, the prevalence of health-related Internet and smartphone use among dermatology patients as well as how patients ultimately use this information is not well studied. This information about patient behavior is important because of the potential harm that may come from patient self-diagnosis, which may delay or prevent treatment, as well as the benefits of patient self-education, which may expedite diagnosis and treatment.5 We surveyed a heterogeneous patient population at 2 dermatology offices in a major academic medical center to assess the prevalence and predictors of Internet and smartphone use to obtain both general medical and dermatologic information among dermatology patients. We also evaluated the impact that health information obtained from online sources has on a patient’s degree of concern about cutaneous disease and the likelihood of seeing a dermatologist for a skin problem.


Survey and Participants

This study was approved by the institutional review board at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. All patients aged 18 years or older who presented to the department of dermatology at 2 offices of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center from September 2013 through July 2014 were invited to participate in an anonymous 33-question survey regarding their use of the Internet and smartphone apps to obtain health information and make health care decisions. Patients were asked to complete the survey prior to seeing a health care provider and return it to a locked box by the front desk before leaving the office. Survey questions were designed by physicians with content expertise (J.A.W. and L.K.F.) and were reviewed by a statistician with survey expertise (D.G.W.). The survey included questions about patient demographics, Internet and smartphone use (both general and health related), and specific sources accessed. The survey also inquired about the impact of health information obtained via the Internet and smartphone apps on respondents’ degree of worry about a hypothetical skin condition or lesion using a 5-point Likert scale (1=no worry; 5=very worried). Respondents also were asked which skin conditions they previously researched online and whether their findings impacted their decision to see a dermatologist. Additionally, respondents were asked to list the smartphone apps and other online health resources they had used within the last 3 months. Prior to distribution, the survey was piloted with 10 participants and no issues with comprehensibility were noted.

Statistical Analysis

We described demographic traits (eg, age, sex, race/ethnicity, level of education, income) and factors associated with access to health care (eg, specialist co-pay, travel time from dermatology office) of respondents using proportions. We evaluated respondents’ access to and use of Internet- and smartphone-based health information using proportions and used χ² tests to quantify differences by sex and age (<50 years and ≥50 years).

We analyzed the impact of Internet and smartphone-based health information on patient worry about skin conditions by obtaining median worry on a 5-point Likert scale. Due to the nonparametric nature of the data, we used the Mann-Whitney U test to quantify differences by sex and age (<50 and ≥50 years). We used multiple logistic regression to identify factors associated with 3 outcomes: (1) using the Internet to self-diagnose a dermatologic disease, (2) using the Internet to obtain dermatology-related information within the last 3 months, (3) and previously refraining from visiting a dermatologist based on reassurance from online resources. Predictors included the aforementioned demographic and health-care access–related traits. We also categorized smartphone apps used by respondents (ie, fitness/nutrition, reference, self-help, health monitoring, diagnostic aids, electronic medical record) and calculated the proportion of respondents with 1 or more of each type of app on their smartphones. Analyses were conducted in Stata 13.1 and IBM SPSS 22.0.


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